Frank Furedi spoke on fear, fate and freedom at the Philosophy Festival in Modena, Italy, on 18 September 2010. An edited version of his speech is published below.
Who decides our individual fates? How much of our future is influenced by our exercise of free will? Humanity’s destiny has been the subject of controversy since the beginning of history.
Back in ancient times, different gods were endowed with the ability to thwart our ambitions or to bless us with good fortune. The Romans worshipped the goddess Fortuna, giving her great power over human affairs. Nevertheless, they still believed that her influence could be contained and even overcome by men of true virtue. As the saying goes: ‘Fortune favours the brave.’ This belief that the power of fortune could be limited through human effort and will is one of the most important legacies of humanism.
The belief in people’s capacity to exercise their will and shape their future flourished during the Renaissance, creating a world in which people could dream about struggling against the tide of fortune. A new refusal to defer to fate was expressed through affirming the human potential. Later, during the period of Enlightenment, this sensibility developed further, giving rise to a belief that, in certain circumstances, mankind could gain the freedom necessary to influence its future.
In the twenty-first century, however, the optimistic belief in humanity’s ability to subdue the unknown and become the master of its fate has given way to a belief that we are powerless to deal with the perils that confront us. Today, the problems associated with risk and uncertainty are constantly being amplified and, courtesy of our own imaginations, are turned into existential threats. Consequently, it is rare for unexpected natural events to be treated as just that; rather, they are swiftly dramatised and transformed into a threat to human survival.
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